Isma'il b. Ali al-Nawbakhti

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Isma'il b. Ali al-Nawbakhti
Personal Information
Full NameIsma'il b. 'Ali b. Ishaq b. Abi Sahl b. Nawbakht
TeknonymAbu Sahl
Well-Known AsAbu Sahl al-Nawbakhti
Religious AffiliationTwelver Shi'a
LineageNawbakhti Family
Well-Known RelativesAl-Hasan b. Musa al-Nawbakhti (nephew)
Place of BirthBaghdad
Burial PlaceKadhimiya
Scholarly Information

Ismāʿīl b. ʿAlī b. Isḥāq b. Abī Sahl b. Nawbakht (Arabic: إسماعيل بن عليّ بن إسحاق بن أبي سَهل بن نَوبَخت) (b. 237/851-2 d. 311/924), known as Abū Sahl al-Nawbakhtī (ابو سهل النوبختي), the famous Imami theologian from the Nawbakhti Family.

He was one of the leaders of Imamiyya in Baghdad, held in high regard by Imami Shiites. He dedicated a great part of his scholarly career to the issue of imamate, especially the Occultation of the Twelfth Imam (a).

Abu Sahl was able to meet the Twelfth Imam (a) in the latter's childhood and closely collaborated with Husayn b. Ruh al-Nawbakhti, the third deputy of the Imam (a).


We have little information on Abu Sahl's early life. In Imami rijal sources, there is no mention of the date of his birth or demise. According to the Sunni biographer, al-Dhahabi, Abu Sahl passed away in Shawwal 311/January-Febraury 924.

It seems that he was born and raised, and probably died in Baghdad. It is said that his grave is in the Holy Shrine of Kazimayn.

Abu Sahl had two sons, 'Ali and Ishaq (d. 322/933-4), and a brother, Abu Ja'far Muhammad, who was also a theologian. Al-Hasan b. Musa al-Nawbakhti, the author of the book Firaq al-Shi'a was Abu Sahl's nephew (sister's son).


Abu Sahl learned theology and Imami Shiite beliefs from Imami scholars, but it seems that he also had some self-study beforehand. It also seems that Abu Sahl learned Mu'tazili theology through self-study and never with Mu'tazili theologians.

In addition to theology—for which Abu Sahl was most well-known—he was a fan and supporter of poetry and a skillful writer.

He was in contact with the poets Ibn Rumi and Buhturi. The latter two eulogized the Nawbakhti family and Abu Sahl in particular.

Theological Thought

Ibn al-Nadim regards Abu Sahl as an eminent figure of the Shi'a and reports that he had a class attended by a group of theologians. According to al-Najashi, Abu Sahl was the master of Imami and non-Imami theologians. Al-Shaykh al-Tusi regards him as the prominent figure of Imami theologians in Baghdad and the head of the Nawbakhtis. And Ibn Hajar counts him as a Mu'tazili theologian.

Since Abu Sahl lived in a critical period of Imami history, i.e. the Minor Occultation, he dedicated much of his scholarly work to the issue of the imamate and the Occultation of the Twelfth Imam (a). He is one of the earliest Imami writers who discussed this issue. Abu Sahl himself was one of the people who met the Imam (a) in the latter's childhood. In his Kamal al-din, Al-Shaykh al-Saduq quotes a part of Abu Sahl's work al-Tanbih fi l-imama on the imamate of the Twelfth Imam (a).

As al-Sharif al-Murtada reports, Abu Sahl's approach was mostly rational, however, he would sometimes appeal to the tradition as well. He used the arguments developed by Abu 'Isa al-Warraq and Ibn al-Rawandi and also developed new arguments himself.

He opposed al-Hallaj—who had introduced himself as the representative of the Twelfth Imam (a)—ridiculed his claims, and even regarded al-Hallaj as deserving excommunication.

In the biography of Abu Sahl, Ibn Nadim mentioned that he had a unique and unprecedented view toward Imam al-Mahdi (a), saying that Imam (a) has passed away and after him, his son has become his vicegerent and transferring imamate from the father to the son will continue during the age of occultation until God's will sets upon the coming of the Occulted Imam (a). With regards to the views known from Abu Sahl, attributing this speech to him seems to be wrong.

Teachers and Students

There is little information as to Abu Sahl's teachers, but the sources mention the names of some of his students in theology and literature. Apart from his son 'Ali, people such as Abu Bakr Muhammad b. Yahya al-Sawli, Abu 'Ali al-Husayn b. al-Qasim al-Kawkabi, and Ahmad b. Muhammad al-Halwani are mentioned among his students.

However, the most important students of Abu Sahl in theology are the following:

Political Role

Abu Sahl can be regarded as one of the leaders of the Imamiyya in Baghdad in the period of Minor Occultation. Although the major leadership of the Imamiyya at that time was with the Deputies of the Twelfth Imam (a), he played an important role in protecting and supporting the Imami Shiites in that period due to his political and governmental positions and because of his scholarly and apologetic activities.

Moreover, with the discussions and debates he had with opposers of Twelever Shi'a in theological issues and his works in defense of Twelver Shi'a beliefs could play an important role alongside the agents of Imam al-Mahdi (a) who mostly had the mission to guard and lead the society of Twelever Shi'a and carry out the guardianship of the society's financial system.

Governmental Positions

Abu Sahl was a secretary for the most of his life.

Although he was put to prison during the vizierate of Qasim b. 'Ubayd Allah b. Sulayman (288/901 - 291/904), he became very close to the vizier at the time of the vizierate of Shiite Ibn Furat.

Supporting the deputies of the Twelfth Imam (a)

Abu Sahl was a supporter of the deputies of the Twelfth Imam (a). He closely collaborated with the third deputy, Husayn b. Ruh. According to a report, Abu Sahl and some other eminent Imami figures were present when the second deputy Muhammad b. 'Uthman was about to pass away, and the latter informed them of the deputyship of Husayn b. Ruh after him.


Many works are attributed to Abu Sahl, but only a part of Kitab al-Tanbih and a couple pages from his Kitab al-Anwar are extant.

Abu Sahl's works can be divided into five groups:

1) His works on imamate:

  • Al-Istifa' fi l-imama, described by Ibn Shahrashub as “good” (hasan)
  • Al-Anwar fi tawarikh al-a'imma
  • al-Tanbih fi l-imama, which al-Najashi has read for his teacher al-Shaykh al-Mufid. This work is important for studying the history of the Minor Occultation.
  • Al-Jumal fi l-imama
  • Al-Radd 'ala Muhammad b. al-Azhar fi l-imama
  • Ithbat al-imama, mentioned by Ibn Shahrashub but probably the same as al-Jumal.

2) Apologetic works against non-Imami Shiite sects

  • Al-Radd 'ala al-Tahiri fi l-imama, which is a refutation of the viewpoints of the Zaydi scholar Ali b. al-Hasan b. Muhammad al-Tahiri, who had a book on imamate.
  • Al-Radd 'ala l-ghulat, a refutation of the viewpoints of Ghulat at the time when the Ghulat were very active.

3) Jurisprudential Works

  • Ibtal al-qiyas
  • Al-Radd (al-Naqd) 'ala 'Isa b. Aban fi l-ijtihad, a refutation of the viewpoints of the Hanafi scholar 'Isa b. Aban, who was a supporter of using analogy
  • Naqd risalat al-Shafi'i, a refutation of al-Risala by al-Shafi'i.

4) Apologetic works against the deniers of the prophethood of Prophet Muhammad (s)

  • Al-Ihtijaj li nubuwwat al-nabi

5) Theological Works

  • Al-Irja'
  • Al-Tawhid
  • Al-Radd 'ala al-'Atahiyya
  • Al-Subk, a refutation of Ibn al-Rawandi's Kitab al-Taj in which the latter had tried to prove that the world is pre-eternal and does not need a creator.
  • Majalis Thabit b. Qurra, which is apparently a record of his scholarly discussions with Thabit b. Qurra, the famous philosopher and logician, which itself shows the extent of Abu Sahl's scholarly activities. It is interesting that among the works of Thabit b. Qurra, there is a book entitled Jawabatuhu 'an masa'il sa'alahu 'anha Abu Sahl al-Nawbakhti (His Answers to the Questions Asked Him by Abu Sahl al-Nawbakhti)
  • Majalisuhu Ma'a Abi 'Ali al-Jubba'i, which is a record of his debates with the famous Mu'tazili theologian, Abu 'Ali al-Jubba'i (d. 303)